On Monday, after years of aggressive Chinese expansion in the South China Sea (SCS), the U.S. dramatically hardened its policy – stating clearly for the first time that China’s maritime claims are “completely unlawful.” In doing so, the U.S. now rightfully regards virtually all Chinese maritime claims outside its internationally recognized waters to be illegitimate.
This policy shift is long overdue and will significantly alter the U.S.-China dynamic in the Pacific, and beyond.
In his statement, reported by NPR, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “We are making clear: Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them.” In recent years, China has made absurd and sweeping claims to sovereignty over the majority of the SCS and all its valuable resources.
To bolster its claims and present its neighbors and the West with a fait accompli, China has built artificial islands or expanded existing islands. As NPR notes, “It has also built airstrips, docks and military facilities on some South China Sea islands and asserted its broad maritime claims with coast guard ships far from Chinese shores.”
These claims are rejected by China’s neighbors, as well as an international tribunal at The Hague. The claims are shown on Chinese maps with the so-called “Nine-Dash Line,” an arc that covers most of the SCS.
Beijing has recently increased its blatant bullying of its neighbors such as Vietnam, Philippines, and Malaysia – using its Maritime Militia and Coast Guard to harass their shipping, including fishing fleets and oil exploration vessels.
Until now, U.S. policy on maritime claims in the South China Sea has been left deliberately vague. As I have written about extensively though, the U.S. Navy has been responding to China’s belligerent actions by ramping up its “freedom of navigation operations’ (FONOPS) near Chinese-occupied locations.
These FONOPS remind Beijing, and reassure its neighbors, that the U.S. has a right to pass through those waters and will continue to keep those sea lanes open.
In past weeks, the U.S. has deployed numerous warships and conducted dual-carrier drills in the region to make its point clear. But now the U.S. has raised the stakes, and the legal argument, openly backing the countries with rightful claims in the SCS for the first time.
AP reported Pompeo as stating:
The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire…America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law. We stand with the international community in defense of freedom of the seas and respect for sovereignty and reject any push to impose ‘might makes right’ in the South China Sea or the wider region.
This is a dramatic change. And, as Tom Rogan at The Examiner notes – the Trump administration “isn’t simply rejecting China’s claims. It is suggesting that other regional nations have far better rights to the waters in question. Pompeo wants to impress the idea not simply of China’s claims being unlawful in legal terms but also absurd in practical reality.”
Pompeo’s reference to China’s ridiculous claim to “James Shoal, an entirely submerged feature only 50 nautical miles from Malaysia and some 1,000 nautical miles from China’s coast,” is an excellent example.
Rogan also provides an excellent analysis of an even more significant result of this U.S. move. The new U.S. policy “establishes a quiet jus ad bellum legal foundation for the use of military force against China in these waters.” But what exactly does this mean?
According to Rogan, providing the legal basis for rejecting China’s claims first, and following that up with a commitment by Pompeo that “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights,” gives the Trump administration justifying authority and cause for using military force to defend those rights in the region.
While the U.S. may not want a war in the South China Sea, the choice of language – “unlawful,” “unprecedented threat,” “sovereign rights,” “will not allow Beijing,” etc., is clearly designed to make a U.S. use of force a viable and legally defensible option.
China, U.S. allies, and the international community will take note – and the U.S. Navy will now be playing for much higher stakes as it patrols the Western Pacific waters.